Losing the Mother Tongue

Written by Firth McEachern, with introductory comment by Ched Arzadon. Main article was retivieved from SunStar Online

The articles below were forwarded to me by Atty Manuel Faelnar. I found out later that they were written by Firth McEachern, a young Canadian Harvard graduate who is presently stationed at La Union. I don’t normally look kindly at outsiders/foreigners who criticize us. But I would take this one as an exception because I know that the writer’s intention is not to put us down but to help us by denaturalizing things that we thoughtlessly do or say on a daily basis.

The articles should make us (esp Ilocanos) pause and ponder.  I used to think (quite to my shame) that a language is just a commodity that we can use, replace or dispose of. It was actually not too long ago that I came to realize that my language is a major part of my soul and identity. And so when I let go of my language, a part of me dies too. This is the other side of MTBMLE which is not simply an instrumental view of language as something that mediates learning, but something that defines who we are.


Losing the mother tongue

By Firth McEachern

(Firth MacKenzie McEachern is a Canadian who graduated from Harvard University. He is currently employed in the San Fernando City Government as a representative of Sustainable Cities, a think-tank and do-tank for sustainability based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His interests include languages, scuba diving, singing, ballroom dancing, photography, nature, meeting new people, learning about new cultures, swimming- ed).

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on July 28, 2010.

Source URL: http://www.sunstar.com.ph/baguio/mceachern-losing-mother-tongue

THERE are very significant and unfortunate reasons why Filipinos devalue their mother tongue. Whether you are Iloco, Bikolano, Pangasinense, or from any of the other 120+ language groups, you are more likely to view Tagalog and English as more important, and might even fail to teach your child your own language. Why is this? The first factor I’ll deal with is education.

Teaching Filipino (which uses Tagalog as its basis), is mandatory in all schools, but there is no formal instruction of vernaculars like Ilocano alongside it, at any level. Rumours have it that next year DepEd will start incorporating local languages in early primary school curricula, which would be an excellent idea. Like many great ideas, however, it may fall short in implementation. So far the vernaculars have been consistently excluded from educational settings, and have even been outright banned: the antiquated penalties for speaking local languages in schools are widely practiced in private schools and unofficially practiced in some public schools, decades after European countries have removed such discriminatory policies for their minority languages.

At first I did not believe this barbaric practice could still be found in
the Philippines. But a few days ago I was in the La Union College of Nursing, Arts, and Sciences, and got proof! I was waiting in the hall and happened to overhear a teacher leading his classroom. He was speaking in English most of the time, but would occasionally switch to Tagalog. Most of the children were chattering in Tagalog with each other, which the teacher didn’t seem to mind. But one time a boy said something in Ilocano to his friend, and the teacher said, “No Ilocano here!” I was shocked. If this is a so-called English school, why would the teacher allow Tagalog and not Ilocano? If he thinks speaking Ilocano is unhelpful to learning English, then the same should apply to Tagalog. Either they should both be allowed in school, or neither. But outlawing one language and not putting restrictions on another is pure and simple discrimination, whether or not one is the national language.

In truth, banning any language in a school-especially a native one-is against international human rights standards. The Philippines is a signatory of the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child. Article 29 clearly declares: “State Parties agree that the education of a child shall be directed to [among other goals]…The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the child’s “cultural identity, language, and values,” and “peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.” How, may I ask, can Filipino schools pretend to be respectful of students’ “identity, language, and values,” or true advocates for “tolerance,” if they discourage or even sometimes penalize the use of the mother tongue? They cannot.

Let me proceed to the next section of the same document that the Philippines has signed:

Article 30. In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practice his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.”

Every language group in the Philippines constitutes a minority, because no language is natively spoken by more than 50% of the population. Tagalog is native to around 30% of the population, Cebuano by 20%, Ilokano by 10 percent, and so on. Therefore, all these languages are protected by the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child, and Filipino children should be allowed to speak whatever vernacular they desire. I urge private schools, public schools, and the educators who run them to stop the barbaric practice of suppressing children’s natural inclination to use their native tongue. Teachers should feel free to use the local language in addition to English and Tagalog, as one is no more inferior to the other.

To suppress the use of local languages contravenes the promises the country has made to the international community, and is in fact unnecessary from a pedagogical perspective. Many studies have shown that integrating the mother tongue in the classroom can help a child understand better, encourage participation, enhance cultural awareness, and raise their confidence, resulting in improved learning-including the learning of English!

Someday I hope to walk into a fancy school like Lorma Colleges in La Union and hear Ilokano, Tagalog, and English being spoken freely. In an equal society, all languages would be perceived equally and could be used by rich or poor without judgment.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on July 28, 2010.

Source URL: http://www.sunstar.com.ph/baguio/mceachern-losing-mother-tongue

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Diversity Shock – Part 1

By Firth McEachern

When I first arrived in the Philippines and journeyed north to my new home, La Union, the first thing I noticed was how many people inhabited this country. The road north from Manila exhibited a near continuous line of sari-sari stores, food stalls, local government halls, churches, and many other buildings, all overlooking a road teeming with children, animals, trucks, buses, farmers, and people sitting wayside to observe the activity. In Canada, journeys between cities are much more desolate, and the transition between wilderness and settlement is abrupt. Here, the activity and people lent a sensation of being perpetually on the outskirts of Manila, and just as I thought to be leaving civilization, another town plaza would appear. Given that my country has a third the population of the Philippines in 30 times the area, the difference in density is expected. But there was something even more shocking that I was not prepared for. In just 6 hours, my new office friends had noted passing four realms of languages. As we crossed into Pampanga from Bulacan, my escort and soon-to-be officemate mentioned, “Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is from here. They speak Kapampangan.”

“Kampan…Kampandunkin?” I repeated woefully inaccurately, the word having gone by too fast. “Do they actually use it or do you mean historically?”

“No, they actually use it,” he said.

How cool! My eyes drifted to the window, amazed by the fact that the endless line of seemingly identical sari-sari stores and general humanity did in fact harbor great variety. It soon became a game in which, whenever we crossed into a new province, I would ask, “What language do they speak here?” To which my officemates would reply something new. In Pampanga, it was Kapampangan; in Tarlac, mostly Tagalog; in Pangasinan, the Pangasinan language, and finally in La Union, Ilokano. My initial judgement of everything being the same was based-rather naively-on appearance. The Philippines has in fact much greater diversity than the cosmetic differences I was looking for, a fact I have gradually come to appreciate more and more. In Canada, one can travel 1000 km and not even detect a difference in accent. While the scenery is many-hued, people are for the most part talking the same way, eating the same things, and interacting with each other in similarly predictable ways. Of course there are immigrant communities, class differences, and some regional variations, but the country’s young age ensures these differences are small, and further dulled by the overriding imprint of American culture from the south.

I came to Northern Luzon originally thinking I would learn Tagalog, but when I heard other languages (especially Ilokano) being spoken everywhere in the streets, the markets, and indeed our office in the San Fernando City Government, I decided I would try out Ilokano. I am glad to have made that choice, for it has prompted many an intriguing conversation. When I ask people for the meaning of a certain word, they often tell me the Tagalog one, assuming that is the language I wish to learn. Many regard me quaintly for wanting to learn a local language, and others have even been hostile about it. “Why aren’t you learning the national language?” they say. “You must learn it.” These interactions exposed me to a deep set of issues regarding language that I probably would have overlooked had I passively learned Tagalog as per common advice. It has prompted me to learn more about how Filipinos view linguistic diversity, mother tongues, and education, the history of language planning in the Philippines, and the current government attitudes surrounding it. Finally, it has lead to the inescapable conclusion that huge linguistic and cultural transformations are taking place in this country, which is affecting everyone-whether you speak Ibaloi, Pangasinan, Ilokano, or even Tagalog. Please join me on this 10-part series to explore these transformations from an outsider’s perspective. What is happening in the world of Filipino languages and why? Are there questions we should be asking? Should the country’s current language trends be redirected somehow? If so, how? See you next week!

Part 2

I was at the supermarket a month ago and decided to try out my fledgling Ilokano on a pretty staff girl. “Manu daytoy?” I asked her, as I picked up a can of corn beef. I don’t even like corn beef, but it was a convenient opportunity to gain a smile from a cute girl.

“Oh, you speak Tagalog!” She said, impressed.

“Actually, Ilokano” I told her, confused.

Oi!” she bleeped in that universal Filipino exclamation of surprise. I assumed the wrong word came out, and didn’t think anything more of the incident.

The same bizarre thing has happened five times since. Granted, my skewed accent probably makes it difficult for listeners to identify certain words, but I don’t think that “Agyamanak” could possibly be construed as “Salamat,” no matter how bad my accent is. There was even a time when a person who had mistaken my Ilokano speaking for Tagalog continued to rattle away in the latter language, despite my showing no signs of comprehension and repeatedly addressing him in Ilokano. I finally had to directly tell him, “Look buddy, I don’t speak Tagalog so I don’t know why you keep talking to me like that.” He acted surprised, as if all the evidence pointed to the contrary.

There was something deeper behind these seemingly innocent mixups, and I wanted to find out what. It turns out that it is so rare for foreigners to learn other Philippine languages other than Tagalog (especially on Luzon), that there is a deep rooted assumption that if a foreigner knows a language of these islands, it is probably Tagalog. Unless one is listening attentively, an exception to this rule may be missed. Another factor in these mixups is my own unwitting fault. Upon hearing Tagalog on the television, I was shocked to discover that many of the words in my Ilokano repertoire are in fact Tagalog-no wonder it’s not immediately obvious to people what language I’m trying to speak! I had no idea that people had been teaching me words from both languages; even more shocking was the realization that the regular “Ilokano” heard on the street is heavily mixed too. How can I learn a foreign language properly when it is being so bastardized by another?

This problem motivated me to find out more. Why do so many Filipinos, especially the youth, speak a “halo-halo” version of their mother tongue and Tagalog? The mixing phenomenon is only slight among adults, as in my office, but a walk through a plaza and you will hear many conversations peppered with “wala“, “mayroon“, “hindi“, and “dapat.” Mixing two languages is not necessarily a bad thing; speakers of Spanglish in the U.S., for example, have recently become advocates for the flexibility and wealth of expressions that mixing can afford. But if mixing becomes so habitual that you cannot speak formally in either language, this is a problem. If you have never been challenged to speak your own language properly, your vocabulary can be stunted, reducing the complexity and scope of conversations you can have. Thus limited, you shall never be able to fully appreciate the depth and power your own language can offer, and in frustration or indolence, continue to drift away from it. If you, your friends, or your children are doing the same, this is not just symptomatic of the decay of your own linguistic abilities, but of the entire language.

Presented with this possibility, it was crucial for me to find out whether the adoption of Tagalog words by non-Tagalog youth was merely a playful social affectation or a symptom of widespread language decay. Are Filipino youth gradually losing vocabulary in their native tongues? If 30% of the words used by non-Tagalog youth are Tagalog, will it be 50% in a few years time? 60%? 70%? Will the streets of Dagupan, San Fernando, Baguio, Naga, Angeles City, and maybe even Davao be 100% Tagalog some day? The thought worries me, and next week, I’ll tell you why.

Part 3

Diversity Shock Part 3

By Firth McEachern

In my last column I wondered whether all the Tagalog words I heard being used by Ilokanos and other language groups meant something serious. Is Tagalog replacing the local languages in Northern Luzon? Or are people just playfully mixing the two languages without neglecting their mother tongue? The answer in the cities, I’m afraid, is the former. And as someone who has been sent to the Philippines from a Canadian organization called Sustainable Cities, I am obviously worried by the fact that cities in the Philippines are not sustaining their linguistic diversity.

The realization first came to me at a carenderia near my house. A cute little girl was wandering between the tables, and I decided to engage her in small talk. “Anya ti nagan mo?” I asked her in Ilokano. She responded with a blank stare. “What’s your name?” I repeated in English. Still no reply.

Isuna Tagalog,” her father (the carenderia owner) told me.

“Oh, I’m sorry! What province are you from?” I asked him, thinking he would tell me Rizal or Quezon or something.

“Here in La Union.” He replied.

“You mean you are Ilokano?” I asked incredulously. “Then why doesn’t your daughter speak it?!”

“We are speaking Tagalog to her.” He said cheerfully.

“Why?” I asked, confused. “Is her mother Tagalog or something?”

“No, she is Ilokana.”

I was shocked. I have met Filipinos abroad whose children only speak English; for the sake of integration, they spoke English at home. But I have never met a mother who, in her own linguistic homeland, has neglected to teach her children the mother tongue.

“This is Northern Luzon, the bastion of Ilokanos. Ilokano has been a dominant language here for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And you parents are both Ilokano, and speak Ilokano to each other. Yet you only want to speak Tagalog to your child?” I pressed.

“Because it is our national language.” He replied.

This statement made me pause for a moment. So what if Tagalog (or Filipino, technically) was the national language? Why did the existence of a national language have to do with parents not passing on their own tongue to their children? Why can’t children learn to speak both?

“Ok,” I said. “And?”

“So it’s good to know it.” He replied.

I still wasn’t following his logic. I don’t dispute the fact that speaking another language is useful to know, especially one so prevalent as Tagalog, but why would a parent not want pass on their mother tongue?

“Well, don’t they learn Filipino at school?” I asked. Why do you need to speak to her in Tagalog at home?”

“That is the trend. If she doesn’t know Tagalog by the time she already goes to school, she will be made fun of. Ilokano is considered too ‘native’.”

“‘Native’? I asked, even more dumbfounded. “What does that mean? What’s wrong with that?”

“Corny, old-fashioned, low class,” the father explained.

Things were just going from bad to worse. Why should a native language have such a low reputation? La Union is 93% Ilokano. It is a traditional Ilokano province. Why should Ilokanos be ashamed of their own language, especially when they are mostly surrounded by other Ilokanos? Do people not realize that Ilokano has just as rich a language as Tagalog, and a long history of literacy too?

Healthy cultures do not dismiss themselves so readily. If the majority of mothers in Philippine cities are now speaking mostly Tagalog to their children (and a smattering of English), they threaten to kill the languages they grew up with. This is disrespectful to one’s language, one’s culture, and the generations of parents who came before, all of whom, until now, succeeded in passing on their native language.

In my next column, I shall explore how and why we have come to this situation. Why is there a measure of self-disapproval among non-Tagalog groups in this country? Why are local languages associated with words like “native”, “corny”, and “old-fashioned”? And I’ll try to give you reasons why it doesn’t have to be like this.

(Firth MacKenzie McEachern is a Canadian who graduated from Harvard University. He is currently employed in the San Fernando City Government as a representative of Sustainable Cities, a think-tank and do-tank for sustainability based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His interests include languages, scuba diving, singing, ballroom dancing, photography, nature, meeting new people, learning about new cultures, swimming- ed).

Firth’s other articles:

http://www.sunstar.com.ph/category/author/firth-mceachern

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